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M. Night Shyamalan and the Curse of Being Called ‘The Next Spielberg’

It’s a title bestowed on many up-and-coming filmmakers, but not one has managed to live up to those expectations — nor could they hope to

In 2000, everyone knew M. Night Shyamalan would be the next Steven Spielberg. Even though the 30-year-old Philadelphia-born director had only a handful of script-doctoring jobs and three directing credits to his name — two for movies virtually nobody had seen — the surprise success of The Sixth Sense had changed the way the industry viewed him virtually overnight. When it came time to release his next film, Unbreakable, story after story tied Shyamalan’s name to Spielberg’s. Some, like a Knight-Ridder profile, attached a question mark to the “next Spielberg” designation. Two years later, a Newsweek cover ditched that punctuation mark. Everyone knew who would redefine the Hollywood blockbuster for the 21st century, 25 years after Spielberg’s Jaws, and that was a guy with a penchant for coaxing complex performances out of Bruce Willis and a fondness for twist endings.

It’s a heavy burden, one that Shyamalan seemed to accept with a mix of confidence and nausea. “It was such a big deal for me. I was actually on the edge of being physically sick that day,” the director told Allentown’s Morning Call, recalling meeting Spielgberg for the first time while promoting Unbreakable. “And I got sick for a week afterwards, but unbelievably my body said, ‘We’ll give you that day.’” (That Spielberg said he’d loved The Sixth Sense and seen it three times probably helped.) But Shyamalan wasn’t exactly running away from the label either. Unbreakable arrived in theaters with an opening title card that read “From M. Night Shyamalan.” Shyamalan included movies he made as a kid as special features on his film’s DVDs. These aren’t the gestures of a filmmaker afraid of attention.

“These movies are about what I’m feeling at the time I write them,” Shyamalan said elsewhere in the same profile. “After The Sixth Sense, I started thinking, ‘What is my position in the world?’ People were saying I was the next Spielberg. But I was wondering if my success was a fluke. So this movie is about a man who’s told, ‘Hey, you are extraordinary! Do you believe that, or do you remember how ordinary you are in so many ways?’” Put another way: “Yes, you’re right, I am the next Spielberg.”

He wasn’t. Which isn’t to slag Shyamalan’s subsequent career, which has had ups and downs (though perhaps more downs than ups). The problem comes from the term itself — the impossible expectations it sets and the difficulty of shedding it. It’s not just that Spielberg is the sort of talent that (maybe) emerges once in a generation — a filmmaker with an innate understanding of film language and an ability to mix entertainment with thematic depth. It’s that he arrived at a moment when the idea of what full-scale Hollywood entertainment should look like was ready for a radical redefinition. Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and other films from Spielberg’s first decade have become the beau idéal of what a Hollywood blockbuster should be, but there’s no turning back the clock to the moment that produced them. 

It’s a bit like labeling every new band that shows promise as the New Beatles: As with Highlanders, there can only be one (or, in that case, four). That Spielberg’s stuck around and remained both financially successful and artistically daring has only complicated matters further. He’s also evolved along the way. When Spielberg tried to make his own throwback Spielberg movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he tripped over his own legacy. If that can happen to him, pity others who try it.

Shyamalan’s not the only one to attract the “next Spielberg” label, or at least be put in a position to become the next Spielberg. But such positioning has a way of not quite working out as planned. In the worst cases, the burden of Spielbergdom crushes what made the filmmakers interesting in the first place. The best-case scenarios, however, hearken back to another moment in which the entertainment industry tried to find a successor for a giant. In the rush to find the “New Dylan” in the early 1970s, the music press attempted to place the crown on everyone from John Prine to Loudon Wainwright III to Bruce Springsteen. It fit none of them. Instead we got the first John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III and Bruce Springsteen, which isn’t too bad a result.

Whether or not things have worked out as well for the various next Spielbergs remains a matter open for debate. Here’s a few cases to consider.

Night Shyamalan

Peak Next Spielberg Moment: Late 1999 to late 2002 (The Sixth Sense through Signs)

What Happened: After The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan leaned into the idea of becoming both a director and a brand name. Yet for all the easy comparisons, he never made crowd-pleasers of the sort that made Spielberg famous. The Sixth Sense works in part because of its slow pace and reliance on eerie, long, unbroken shots. It rewards patience and attention. That’s even more true of Unbreakable, which puzzled critics and moviegoers expecting another Sixth Sense, even if it now looks like Shyamalan’s best film. Signs struck a fine balance between his disciplined style and exciting storytelling, but the road gets rockier on the other side. 

Some films didn’t quite work (The Village) while others courted mockery (Lady in the Water, The Happening). When Shyamalan tried more conventional efforts like The Last Airbender and After Earth, he lost the personality that made even his weaker efforts compelling. 2015 saw him going small with the found-footage comeback The Visit. It would prove divisive, as would his follow-ups, Split and Glass. But with each he seemed comfortable making M. Night Shyamalan movies again, whatever others might expect of him.

J.J. Abrams

Peak Next Spielberg Moment: Super 8 (2011) (but also pretty much every other film he’s ever directed)

What Happened: Born into show business, Abrams first made a name for himself as the hotshot screenwriter behind sensitive dramas like Regarding Henry and Forever Young before finding greater success on television via Felicity, Alias and Lost. As a film director, he’s largely positioned himself as a steward of pre-existing properties he can retrofit for the current moment. Sometimes that’s worked out well (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens); other times, less well (Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). 

His one original film has been Super 8, an unabashed throwback to the sort of wonder-in-suburbia films Spielberg made in the stretch between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. (Spielberg even served as executive producer). It’s pretty good! But, tellingly, some of the best moments are the ones that owe the least to Spielberg, like a movie-making scene that reveals the remarkable range of Elle Fanning’s acting talents. Abrams has seemed extremely comfortable slipping into the role of the go-to blockbuster director but, post Rise of Skywalker, it might be smart for him to reconnect with what his own voice sounds like.

Colin Trevorrow

Peak Next Spielberg Moment: Jurassic World (2015)

What Happened: Nothing says, “Maybe I’m the next Spielberg” quite like directing the sequel to a Spielberg film. Kicked up to the big time after the so-so science fiction-ish indie Safety Not Guaranteed, Trevorrow enjoyed tremendous success with Jurassic World, so much so that it seemingly took a few years for many viewers to realize it was loud and big without being particularly good. (Even Chris Pratt’s attempt at chauvinistic-but-charming action hero played like a sour version of what worked before.) Trevorrow’s follow-up, the boy-genius-teaches-his-mother-to-murder-from-beyond-the-grave movie The Book of Henry, was at least a big swing. But it was also pretty terrible. 

Trevorrow was set to direct The Rise of Skywalker, but that job fell through in the wake of The Book of Henry’s box office failure (and the widespread mockery that accompanied it). Whether or not Trevorrow’s version of Rise of Skywalker would have worked better than Abrams’ will forever be a subject of speculation. Whether he’ll serve as a cautionary tale for directors who rose too far, too fast remains a question unlikely to be answered by his next film, a third entry in the Jurassic World series.

Ron Howard

Peak Next Spielberg Moment: Willow (1988)

What Happened: Howard transitioned from acting to directing first by directing and starring in a low-budget Roger Corman film (Grand Theft Auto), then by directing a series of amiable comedies like Night Shift and Splash. Cocoon found him dabbling in science fiction (though remaining largely earthbound), but with the George Lucas-produced Willow, he went full blockbuster. It didn’t last that long. Howard picked up skills marshaling huge productions that have served him well over the years, but mostly he’s served as the consummate journeyman, the maker of good, occasionally very good movies that need the steady hand of an actor-friendly director with no interest in imposing too much of his personality on a film. When he returned to the world of Lucas with Solo he did so as a reliable replacement for a production that had grown troubled. He’s the guy you call to get the job done, one happy to leave the sweeping visions to others.

Jon Favreau

Peak Next Spielberg Moment: Iron Man (1998) to present (with some breaks)

What Happened: Favreau’s breakthrough success, as the writer and star of the era-capturing 1990s relationship comedy Swingers, didn’t seem to herald the beginning of a blockbuster filmmaker’s career. But Favreau had other plans. With Iron Man, he helped define the personality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and though his retreat to indie filmmaking effort Chef suggests he’d become a bit burnt out with corporate filmmaking (Cowboys & Aliens probably didn’t help), he’s since gone on to make two effects-filled remakes of Disney animated classics (The Jungle Book, The Lion King) and create The Mandalorian for Disney+ with hints of more Star Wars projects to come. 

He’s very good at stepping into the shoes of others and, to strain the metaphor to the breaking point, updating those shoes for the games of today (maybe even better than Abrams). But that skill isn’t exactly the same as shaping new visions to inspire others decades from now. Call it the Next Spielberg Paradox: The better you are at replicating what made Spielberg’s early blockbusters work, the less likely you are to be the next Spielberg.

Jordan Peele

Peak Next Spielberg Moment: Get Out (2017) to present

What Happened: Hmm… Consider this: Peele’s found tremendous success as a director via Get Out and Us, a pair of challenging but deeply entertaining horror films based around original ideas. He’s also, like Spielberg, branched out into producing via projects that invite like-minded talents to collaborate with him (The Twilight Zone and, one assumes, Nia DaCosta’s forthcoming Candyman remake and the HBO series Lovecraft Country). Peele’s developed a distinctive sensibility as in tune with the cultural moment in their own way as the cluttered suburban homes of Spielberg’s early films. The “next Spielberg” label seems to be less blessing than curse, so let’s not apply it to Peele. But keep an eye on him anyway. (And if that doesn’t work out, it’s not like he doesn’t have other skills to fall back on.)